Debate gets explosive
Confusion surrounds Traditional Knowledge policy

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by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 03/97) - Frances Widdowson is a catalyst for what's turning into an explosive debate on traditional knowledge.

Renewed interest in the controversial issue surfaced late last year after Policy Options, a respected public policy journal, published a critical article on the subject written by Widdowson and her husband, freelance consultant Albert Howard.

Debate was rekindled a few weeks ago when Widdowson, a GNWT senior policy analyst in the Department of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development, was suspended without pay because of the article.

"The department is discriminating against me on the basis of religious affiliation because it is requiring that I promote particular spiritual beliefs as part of my employment," she said in an interview with News/North.

In a letter to Andrew Gamble, the department's deputy minister, Widdowson said she co-wrote the article as a private citizen and doesn't deserve to be disciplined.

"I was hired by the department to analyze policies, not to promote spiritual beliefs and the government does not have the right to make this a condition of my employment," she wrote.

Publicity surrounding Widdowson's situation sparked debate within the legislature last week.

Resources Minister Stephen Kakfwi took offence at the notion that anyone would dare to suggest that aboriginal accumulated knowledge not be incorporated into government policy.

"For all the thousands of years we've existed we have a tremendous amount of use and knowledge of this land ... with nothing to contribute to the scientific community?" he said.

But Widdowson said she is concerned that the government's definition of traditional knowledge is so vague it makes it difficult for GNWT employees to implement the policy.

Kakfwi offered little to address that concern. "I don't think it's relevant if I have a definition myself -- as a minister -- on traditional knowledge," he said. "The fact is that this government has a position on it."

And when questioned by Nunakput MLA Vince Steen, Kakfwi couldn't say how much money the GNWT spends on implementing the policy, nor could he give specifics as to why the policy should be adopted.

"It should be said that some things are just as necessary to do as the daily bodily functions," Kakfwi said. "You can't go without them."

Calls to several GNWT departments revealed more than a little ignorance and confusion about traditional knowledge. Half a dozen employees contacted either weren't familiar with the term "traditional knowledge" or they didn't feel comfortable talking about the "controversial topic."

If nothing else, Widdowson's article and her subsequent suspension from her job has opened the floor for some serious debate about traditional knowledge -- a procedure she maintains should have been done before it became government policy.

The bottom line to Widdowson, however, is all about rights. "To have a policy in place that imposes spiritual beliefs without debate is unacceptable," she said.